More 7th Century

Just a short post this morning, but I’ve really been enjoying John Haldon’s The Empire That Would Not Die: The Paradox of Eastern Roman Survival, 640-740 (Harvard 2016). In many ways, Haldon has been responsible for the changing perceptions of the 7th and 8th century among historians and archaeologists with his several, high-influential works on the topic.

His most recent work stands 25 years (well 26), after his Byzantium in the Seventh Century, and surveys the field since this important work. The book brings together politics and religion with institutional history of the Roman state and the archaeology and even environmental history of the Late Roman world. I’ll reflect on the book more expansively next week.

What interested me the most for now, however, is that Haldon decided to use a biological metaphor for his study of the Roman state. His title and, indeed, the main focus of the book, is that states must “die.” The persistence of the Roman state in the Eastern Mediterranean, despite the massive dislocations, turmoil, and changes of the 7th and 8th centuries, is, in some ways, its exceptional feature. For Haldon, the military and economic pressures on the state created conditions under which it should fail, but it didn’t.

It’s interesting that among archaeologists, we’ve increasingly come to expect continuity despite political and economic changes. In other words, we’re less inclined to expect a local social organization, political structures, or material culture to change even under rather dire or extreme pressures from military interventions or regime change. This speaks to the deep affinity to structuralism among archaeologist, our inclination to study society at the scale of centuries, and our profoundly ironic attitude to the traditional historical discourse. If history says change, archaeology frequently calls for continuity. 

As I read Haldon’s book, I can’t help but constantly turn his premise on its head and wonder what agents and force would be necessary to make a state change at all and what kind of change would be necessary for us to declare a state well and truly dead.